But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed.” And, “Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.’
Acts 27: 22 & 31
I want to take these two verses together. Now we have an account in this chapter of Paul’s journey across the Mediterranean Sea from Crete to Malta on his way to his trial in Rome. Merely from the literary perspective it is a superb narrative. It contains a mass of authentic nautical detail which those people who’re interested in boats and sailing 2000 years ago find quite fascinating. Does this chapter sound to you like a myth, a fairy story, or does it sound like good reportage, with all the names and details, utterly credible? Do you think when Paul speaks in the middle of it of an angel speaking to him that that comment is fantasy, a lie, or do you think, as I do, that it is another proof for the existence of angels? Listen! Paul says, “Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul’” (vv.23&24). There it is, in this real, supernatural world of ours.
The chapter contains many great truths about God and how he works in the world he has made. The apostle Paul is found here at sea very much out of his comfort zone. He is not teaching in a synagogue and defending the faith against attack. He is not preaching. He is a passenger on a ship, a human being afloat in a particular, urgent crisis, and there is much to learn from Paul’s composure and initiative in this particular emergency.
- PAUL DISPLAYS IMMENSE AND FREE INITIATIVE.
This supreme theologian who so resolutely champions the absolute sovereignty of God displays to us here that he is no fatalist. He is shrewd, creative and very discerning.
i] Paul the counsellor. He is someone who gives the best advice. The captain and owners of the boat are thinking of setting sail at the worst time of the year and Paul speaks up and he cautions them about doing this (v.10) but that advice is turned down. The men didn’t appreciate who was speaking to them, and when Paul speaks to men in Aberystwyth today in his powerful letters then they show that same attitude towards him.
ii] Paul the comforter. Here is someone who in the midst of the storm is often seeking to raise the morale of everybody on board ship. He says, “Keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost” (v.22), and again he exhorts them “Keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me” (v.25).
iii] Paul the observer. We see (v.31) how alert Paul is – no senile decay in him at all – and he spots the sailors endeavouring to launch the lifeboat and escape with their own lives and so imperil the passengers who have no idea how to handle a ship especially in a storm. Only Paul notices this, the others are filled with worry and intent on preserving their own lives.
iv] Paul the nutritionist. He notices that they are too worried to eat and are neglecting their daily bread and we find the apostle full of sagacity and common sense urging them to take some food (vv. 33&34), and then in the midst of the crisis he bows before God and says grace before them all, asking God’s blessing on what they were to eat, and they were all moved and strengthened by his devotion and they ate their food (v.36).
v] Paul the practical helper. The ship runs aground and breaks up in Malta and the passengers and crew all plunge into the waves and grab any flotsam to help them ashore. All 276 of them get to land; not one life is lost, but then Paul does not hold a prayer meeting or lie down to recuperate. He goes around and gathers brushwood and puts it on the fire to help dry these cold, wet people (Acts 28:3). This active, compassionate, practical man is an apostle. He has apostles’ gifts. He is able to go to the governor Publius’ home and lay his hands on Publius’ father sick with fever and dysentery, and heal him (Acts 28:8). That is a sign of an apostle. Then the rest of the sick on the island are brought to him and the apostle heals all of them too (Acts 28:9). Apostles had such gifts, but they did not live in a fantasy hyper-religious world. They lived their lives in the real world.
Why have I begun a sermon on the power of God by emphasising all this about the apostle? Because I don’t want any one of you to think that because we believe in the absolute sovereignty of God that that would make us fatalists, uncaring and impractical men, like other religionists who say in the face of disasters, “The will of Allah!” Paul shows us that this cannot be so; he was full of faith in an all-powerful God but also he was full of concern for his fellow men and that concern displayed itself in many practical measures. You always love your neighbour as yourself. The two must go hand in hand. They exist alongside one another in the Bible. They both stand on the evidence of the independent witness of Scripture to these realities. They must both be co-existent in our own lives. Here in our texts we are given an unconditional promise that “not one of you will be lost” (v.22). God commits himself to keep every one of them by his power, but then in our second text we read another emphasis, equally true, “unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved” (v.31). There we have them both, the unconditional sovereign power of God and also the unqualified responsibility of man.
- OUR POWERFUL SOVEREIGN GOD RULES.
The great refrain of the psalmists is that ‘Our God reigns.’ He has a throne and from that throne works all things after the counsel of his own will. He does according to his will among the armies of heaven and amongst the people of earth and no one can smack his hand down and prevent him doing what he has decided to do. We cannot trump God and stop him accomplishing his purposes. Paul knew that not only from the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures but because of a special revelation given to him there and then as an apostle. God had sent a messenger to him one night and assured him of what his kind and saving intentions were for the people on the boat; “Last night an angel of the God whose I am and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me” (vv.23-25). God tells him this as one who knows the future and all the complex amalgam of the different combination of facts and forces facing Paul in the boat. God has made known to the apostle his will for Paul and the passengers and crew. He has spoken out of the depths of his absolute and infallible foreknowledge.
Confronting him are all the forces of nature operating in the emergency. There are also the deep hidden factors of apparently unpredictable human choice, and yet the Lord knows, and he knows every detail of what the outcome is going to be, for the infirm and the babies and the pregnant mothers and the soliders and the non-swimmers. There is going to be no loss of life. There will be no injury even of the weakest and most infirm soul. Not one hair is going to fall from their heads without his permission, and the Lord has decreed it. He has decreed it because he is the one who has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. He is the Omnipotent one who works all things after the counsel of his own will. If I can change the language, he is governing every creature and governing their every action. He is the one in control of the winds and the waves. He is the one at the helm. The Lord is the one who regulates the whole development and movement and appoints the conclusion of this whole affair because he is standing here as the Governor of every principality, power and dominion, and over every creature and their every action. Let us see the implication of that for a moment. I will break it down in a number of ways.
i] God is sovereign over the whole material universe. The greatest scientists know merely the tiniest part of our vast and complex cosmos. They know so little about it that they should be far more modest in what they claim. God rules over the whole thing. It exists and moves in him. He governs the moon and the planets, their composition, and dimensions and movement. God appoints and determines and controls every planetary system. He determines every explosion and spot on the face of the sun. He rules over the whole galaxy of which our solar system is a part, the billions of suns in our system, and then the billions of other galaxies in their bewildering and immeasurable vastness. God determines the qualities of every crystal and chromosome, every atom and molecule. He has given to them all their own distinctive qualities and he has imposed on them his own particular laws, and makes them submit to his own particular principles.
We often speak as if this were different. We imagine sometimes that this universe – this vast cosmos – operates by ‘natural law’ and yet we forget that there is no such thing as ‘nature’. Nature is only a concept, an abstraction. Nature has no laws because nature has no being. It is not an entity. It is only an idea in the mind of man. The only laws that this universe submits to are the laws that have been built into the cosmos by its Creator – our Almighty personal God, and that is all, and he can suspend temporarily all or any of them at his will. Again we speak of the ‘rationality’ of the universe, and we think in that way because it can be scientifically analysed and examined and described in terms of graphs, and mathematical concepts that remain dependable. So we use this term ‘rational universe.’ But again the universe has no rationality; the atoms have no minds; the planets don’t think. The only rationality that this world has is an orderliness imposed upon it by the infinite intelligence of our Almighty Creator. And if there exists in Scripture a natural philosophy then those are its bedrock principles. The ultimate thing in the universe is the will of God, and alongside of that is the ultimacy of the mind of God. I am saying to you that the last reality, and the foundational reality in the whole cosmos is a person. It is not matter; it is not light; it is not energy. It is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and it is the will and the mind of God that imposes upon the whole universe its every feature, all its characteristics and its movements.
I will take the language that Paul uses elsewhere and adapt it; “God has given it a body as it pleased him.” It is not the rationality of a molecule that means that it behaves in a certain way. It is not a law in nature that determines the course of evolution or what have you. It is the will of God that imparts to every particle of matter its own particular qualities. We have to remind ourselves that what men and women are doing in every branch of science is merely observing. We are only seeing what God has done, how he made the universe. We are concerned only in describing the way that God has ordained how things are. So when we emphasize the power of God, and see that the universe is built entirely upon God’s will then we can learn one great lesson. We are being told this, that it is the height of folly for men to argue dogmatically how things are going to be, to argue from mathematical laws or from the temperature of the universe or what have you that things are going to go on being like this, and that events are bound to develop in a certain way.
Let me show you what I mean for a moment. When I was in school in the 1950s we were still using text books that claimed it was impossible to split the atom. Not long ago men held on mathematical grounds that there couldn’t possibly be more than one planetary system. Not long ago men held that all the planetary movements must be circular. The arguments for evolution that were used when I was at university have all been discredited and are never used today. Empirical science, investigation and observation have shown the falsehood of things that once were claimed to be true “because science taught it.” But then God came to a different conclusion and has imposed a different character upon the universe to that which men might have expected.
Now when men look at the miracles of the word of God, the appearance of an angel who brings a message from our Creator, the power of an apostle to heal a dying man, are they saying again that such things are impossible and so they cannot happen? They are forgetting again that the first and last and the ultimate and foundational reality of the universe is not mathematics, and it is not genetics, and it is not human rationality but it is the will of God. You take that great old phrase, “It only takes a flash of the will that can and the dead rise” because God is in control and he is giving to every particle of matter the properties that he decides, and he causes them to behave in a certain way – what he determines. The will of God is the ultimate and foundation reason for the whole material universe.
ii] God is sovereign over the whole of biological life. You realise again how utterly complex that is. Now just briefly, there is vegetable life, there is animal life, human life and so on. Who is in control? Who has given to each their being? Where does their initiation come from? It derives from the source I’ve mentioned; it comes from the rationality and will of God. It comes out of the eternal divine mind. God said, “Let there be . . .” That life has not come from some kind of spontaneous generation in primeval soup. It did not simply all luckily evolve out of inert matter, but that life came like a flash of the will of Almighty God, and of course that life developed, even as Genesis 1 reminds us, until God created the glory that is man out of the dust of the earth, and God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and man became a living creature.
Who is it that superintends that creation? Who is in control of the order? Let me remind you again of the tendency that philosophers and scientists have to speak of the universe and certain laws and principles as if they were persons. Men have said that life progressed because of ‘natural selection.’ In other words they acknowledge that there has indeed been selection, and then we ask, “Who’s done the selecting?” and they reply ‘nature’ and then we ask in our ignorance, “Who is nature?” Again I say that the selection of the order of creation is a selection of God. ‘He has given to each a body as it has pleased him.’ Every life form is the result of the decision of God. Every adaptation of every beak and tail and limb to every diverse environment is rooted in the will of God. Again, the biological quest is only an investigation of the mind of God. It is an examination of those patterns, and forms, and characteristics that God has imposed upon life.
iii] God is sovereign over all of human life. Now can we see something of the complexity and marvel of that? We are told by our Lord that God controls the trivia of our human experience. “The very hairs of your head are all numbered.” Even the fall of a sparrow does not occur apart from the will of God, let alone our own falls. There are the great providences that we have all experienced, and will yet experience until the final one when we breathe our last breath. There are these kinds of meteorological storms like this one before us in Acts 27. Jonah knew a similar one, and Elijah experienced one, and the disciples in a boat on Galilee too. Then in the history of the church we remember the effect of a storm on Luther, and on John Wesley, and on John Newton. God commands and forth come the mighty tempests!
We see here a most comforting Christian principle. It is that no storm can ever meet us that does not ultimately come from God. We only have the days that the Lord has made. We never have anything but the will of God, no matter what the tempests may be. Every day we experience his workmanship. No one can take that from us. That is the bedrock of Christian comfort. I can preach that; I can’t always, in practice, live it.
God’s power rules over the free actions of men, that is, those actions that are rooted in indeterminate human choice, in unconstrained and uncompelled human decision, like the good Samaritan who happened to go the way that the man had gone before him that day and so he comes across him, robbed, beaten up and left half dead, and he saved his life. Or when men freely make up their minds to act in a certain way, as the good Samaritan did, stopping and pouring oil and wine onto his wounds and lifting him onto his donkey and taking him to an inn and saving his life. God was ruling in that circumstance too. The Samaritan made those decisions; he was not a manipulated robot. Behind his action there was the rationality and morality and government and foreordination of God.
Remember how king Ahab dies? He is in disguise standing in a chariot and a group of enemy archers are randomly shooting their arrows toward the opposing soldiers, Then the trajectory of one arrow, its flight through the currents of air, its direction and velocity were all planned by God and it strikes Ahab when he is unprotected, in the joint between two pieces of armour, and the arrowhead enters his body and it is not long before he is a dead king, and thus a prophecy of God is fulfilled. The power of God embraces the trivia, it includes the mighty tempests and spectacular providences, it extends to man’s free actions.
The power of God extends even to man’s evil actions. How can I show you that? You see that fact so sublimely and supremely in the crucifixion of our Lord. There was the tremendous coalescence of the forces of evil, Satan, Judas, the Sanhedrin and Pilate – both Jew and Gentile – combining together to put Christ on the cross, and to fulfil “the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Whatever God determines in eternity man will always choose in time. What had God determined? That Christ would be the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, that the Lord would lay on him the iniquity of us all. Then this is exactly what all those men, Jews and Gentiles, kings and commoners, all freely chose to do, they crucified Jesus of Nazareth.
Again, you see the mighty empires of the ancient world, raised on foundations of sin and evil, the empires of Cyrus, and Nebuchadnezzar, and Alexander, and I am saying that all of those tyrants were at the last, slaves of God. “Cyrus, my servant,” says the Lord. Those kings’ hearts were all in the hands of the Lord turned by him at his will. So God’s power embraces the trivia, and the spectacular storms, and the free actions of men, and the evil actions of men.
God’s power extends to the salvation actions of men. When a person puts his faith in Christ isn’t it indeed a given faith? Isn’t that faith a foreordained faith? When a person’s heart is opened to the Lord isn’t it the Lord himself who has opened the heart as he opened Lydia’s heart. And when men are cut to the heart so that their hearts are broken in contrition isn’t it the Lord who has broken the heart? Doesn’t the Lord give repentance? Doesn’t he convince them of their sin? When men turn and are converted isn’t it just as the Lord said to Peter that when he was converted that he should strengthen his brothers? We have this great emphasis on human action and human experience and behind it and in it all there is the purpose and power of God at work. There is a foreordination that embraces the whole material universe, that also embraces every kind of living thing, and that embraces all the details of our human lives.
So Paul and everyone on the ship in this emergency were caught up in that dimension, they were living in the plane of divine foreordination. They were fulfilling God’s eternal decrees. They were living within the field of God’s counsel, and the Lord had determined to be with them and in them, governing and preserving them and all their actions.
- WE ARE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR ACTIONS AND ACTIVITIES.
I have shown you from Scripture how all-embracive and powerful is the sovereignty of God. And that might make some of you resentful and perplexed, because it seems to shrink you into being mere puppets, and so let me show you another crucial truth in the Bible from our passage, verse 31, And “Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, ‘Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.’” Paul saw the frightened sailors – thinking there was no hope for the ship – cutting free the lifeboat to escape with their lives, but Paul sees the danger. They would be helpless to know how to steer the ship and lower or hoist the sails without the sailors. They would be doomed and in language like that he tells the centurion that the sailors had to stay on board or no one would be saved.
Here we have an unconditional divine promise that not one soul was going to be lost (v.22). Yet there was a certain line of human action that was indispensable to its fulfilment. In the absence of that action the purpose of God to save these people might appear to be frustrated. We can say it more accurately like this, that there was a line of human action and through all those actions God’s foreordination was going to be fulfilled.
See that in this incident itself. There is the great promise of the mighty power of God working, controlling this drifting ship and the sea and the winds and the decisions of the crew. At the helm of this boat is Jehovah Jesus. Yet he now insists through his apostle that certain human actions are imperative. There are three of them in fact. What are they?
i] The sailors must stay on board. And the reason for that is perfectly clear. All the rest of the people on the ship are land lubbers. God is pointing out to them the obvious, that without the sailors they would never get to land. God’s promise depends on that.
ii] They must all eat food to keep strong (v.34). We all need daily bread. That is how we are made and we need to ask God for it. It was there; so let them all eat it. They needed stamina to get the ship to land and to swim ashore. They were living under the comprehensive foreordination of Almighty God and that foreordination embraces this principle of daily nourishment if we are to present our bodies to him as our reasonable service.
iii] They must abandon the ship to get onto the island (v.43). If they remained on board they would perish. They had to jump into the foaming waves and thus they’d be saved. God’s foreordination was that not one person on board was going to be lost, yet these people had no right to sit back and relax saying that they had been elected to safety. They had to stop the sailors sailing off in the lifeboat, they had to nourish themselves with food, and they had to swim ashore.
- THESE TRUTHS APPLY TO OUR SITUATION THIS VERY DAY.
i] Caring for our environment. God made a covenant with Noah to preserve the world, a covenant of goodness and ecological care. He will ensure that such a judgment that occurred at Noah’s time will not destroy the earth again. The earth is going to be a fit arena for human endeavour, that there will be food to sustain us, and air to breathe and an inhabitable earth. But then we may not say that we can do what we please with our environment because God is going to keep it. We can dump all our rubbish into Cardigan Bay. We can tip all the rocks from coal mining over a running stream and create an Aberfan disaster; we can neglect the safe storage of nuclear waste because God has promised that he will keep a covenant with the world. No. That covenant is given to us as an encouragement to godly stewardship of the resources of this earth and of the universe itself. We may not defoliate it, and pollute rivers and seas, and turn the prairies into dust bowls, and cut down the trees and spread the deserts of the world. Then the earth will not be a fit theatre for man and human society
ii] Engaging in biblical evangelism. John Ryland Sr. is said to have patronised the cobbler William Carey at an Association meeting when he raised the issue of the Great Commission and their obligation to obey it today. In George Smith’s history we are told that Carey had told Marshman (a fellow missionary in India) that Ryland Sr. had said, “Young man, sit down! When God pleases to convert the heather he will do it without your aid or mine.” But John Ryland Jr. said that his father had no recollection of every saying those words, and I tend to believe him as our memories about famous incidents in the past tend to distort our recollection. Such a sentiment as those quoted words would have been forgetting the command of the powerful sovereign God when he had told the churches to go and gather the elect and evangelize the uttermost parts of the earth, even “every creature.” Paul outside Corinth was told not to be afraid but to enter the city and preach to all the citizens and that God had many people in that place. So he went and preached and found the elect that way, but it did not end there. For the rest of his life he had an obligation to help them and wrote to them two of the longest letters in the Bible. He did this knowing that God had them and none could pluck them out of God’s hands, yet he evangelised and exercised the most minute pastoral care over them. We have no right to take advantage of God’s foreordination as a pretext for our reluctance to get out of the house and visit some people with the gospel.
iii] Treating our own need of salvation with the utmost seriousness and endeavour. If God has chosen his people then am I allowed to say, “If men are elect then they’ll be saved and that is the end of the story”? No, because God also calls all men everywhere to repent, and the Lord also commands all who labour and are heavy laden to come for rest to Jesus Christ. They are only saved when they do what our powerful electing God tells them to do, when they trust in him, when they are committed to him, when they put their hand in the hand of Christ.
When were the people on the boat in the storm saved? Were they saved when the angel told the apostle none of them would drown, or when Paul passed on the message and told them that they were safe? No! They were only saved when they climbed out of the waves and up the beach on the island of Malta. They were wet and utterly exhausted but they were safe because they had not stayed on the ship which had now broken up and sank. And we today, though we live on the one plane of divine foreordination and sovereign election yet we have another plane on which we live and there we do what God says, we make decisions, and have a commitment and exhaust ourselves in doing God’s will, and launch out into the sea with energy-consuming action.
It was the salvation of people that God ordained. It was people that God ordained to cast onto the beach in Malta. Had he determined to cast animals alive on that island he would have driven them onto it. If he wanted to save vegetation then he would have directed the winds and currents to cast them onto Malta. If he had determined to save driftwood then that could have floated as flotsam onto the island blown by the winds. But these were people in his image. They had a conscience, and minds, and wills. They had to think and make decisions, and only in that way would they be saved, when they committed themselves to commands that told them, “Jump into the sea,” and they jumped. There was no other way.
We must ask ourselves whether we shall respond to our powerful God by doing what he says. And the great Governor of the universe is saying to us today, “Think! Make decisions! Cast yourselves into the arms that are outstretched to receive you from which no one can pluck you.” You are to respond to the will of God by compliance, by obedience. Well, shall we do that? Shall we be saved like men and women? We have no right to say we will wait until we have gone under twice and are almost drowning, and thus waste all our lives until that moment. Let us not provoke God by seeing how long we can avoid obeying him. Let us go with our minds, and go with our wills, and go with our affections and cast ourselves on this powerful God.
22nd June 2014 GEOFF THOMAS